BOOK REVIEW: Simon Schama’s A History of Britain Vol. 1: At The Edge Of The World?

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The first volume of Simon Schama’s History of Britain is a poetic, dramatic and page-turning revitalisation of early medieval Britain’s royal grandeur

Edition: 2009, The Bodley Head

At this point, fellow history buffs will need no introduction to Simon Schama. British-born but long-time professor of History and Art History at Columbia University, New York, he’s been gracing my TV screen for as long as I can remember.

Little did I know that his early-00’s BBC documentary series was also fleshed out in three books. It was his latest documentary series, The Romantics And Us, that spurned me to get my hands on any literature he’d written. So now that I’m here – and given the entirely necessary reappraisal and uprooting of much of British history within the last 12 months – how does A History of Britain: At The Edge Of The World? Stand up in 2021?

Well, it does and it doesn’t. On the one hand, it’s an immensely readable, poetic and entertaining thing. Schama doesn’t cover any massive new ground, nor does he pretend to. His remit and refreshing eye is contained in his lyrical writing, bringing the full peacock-ish sense of Elizabethan splendour, or the gruelling Machiavellian antics of Anglo-Saxon Britain, to zesty life.

Schama in 2009. Image credit: Monica Flickr.

Royal Grandeur

Whereas most of Schama’s focus is on the royal court, with all its scheming backstabbers and political intrigue, there are ruminations on feudal normality; how the people endured after the coronation of William the Conqueror, for example, or the helplessness of the periodic plagues that ransacked Plantagenet & Tudor Europe.

But largely, this is a book about grandeur, and how ultimately hubris has constantly determined the fate of our rulers. So far, so medieval Britain, you might think.

But where Schama really reigns supreme is in his characterisations. His reappraisal of Anne Boleyn as a chief architect in the seemingly permanent cultural Reformation is brilliantly realised. As much as he draws on Thomas Cromwell’s ruthlessness in bringing about her demise (‘pure devilry’, as he calls it), he draws out her political nuance:

‘It’s not only reasonable but essential to come back to Anne Boleyn as both the occasion and the cause of this extraordinary change in direction’.

Anne Boleyn, capable of much more than history often remembers. Image credit: Loz Pycock Flickr.

He does the same for Thomas Becket, who we ‘rightly’ think of as a stuffy religious zealot, but:

‘the truth is he was a real Londoner, with an instinctive flair for the things that Londoners have always cared most about: display and costume; the getting and spending of money; theatre, private and public; and (even though his stomach was delicate) fine food and drink. He was street smart and book smart. He was, from the get-go, a Player.’

What can we learn from it?

For all his poeticisms, there isn’t much in the way of prophetic nuance here. But it’s not a book that forgets that the modern world exists, and Schama finds parallels that were as relevant in 2000 as they are today.

He distils and summarises the lingering impact of nationalism in a brief half paragraph:

‘Nationalism, we are trained to assume, is a modern invention. But then what do we make of these utterances with their passionate attachment to territory and local memory? They document, unmistakably, if not nationalism, then at least ‘nativism’, a politics of birthplace, of land and language. After these voices were heard, Britain would never be the same again’.

Elizabeth I. Image credit: Francisco Anzola Flickr.

And as he navigates the tumultuous relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart, he exposes how the former’s body and politics became commodified by the men surrounding her, but also how she was far from bendable to their whims. One glaring caveat is that there’s no mention of the early slave trade, which seems even more odd in today, especially given Schama’s political sensibilities.

Studious readers of medieval history might not learn much from A History of Britain: At The Edge Of The World? But if you’re looking for an antidote to the usually pretty dry storytelling of much history writing, then this is no bad place to start.

You can buy A History of Britain Volume One: At the Edge of the World? here.

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